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Myanmar, ethnic rebel armies sign cease-fire

Myanmar signs a cease-fire agreement with eight rebel armies, but some large groups refused, such as the Wa and Kachin

Myanmar's government and eight smaller ethnic rebel armies signed a cease-fire agreement to end more than six decades of fighting, but several more powerful groups refused to come on board, signaling that peace will remain elusive for some time to come.

The agreement was signed at a ceremony in Myanmar's administrative capital, Naypyitaw by President Thein Sein and representatives of the groups.

The pact comes just before the Nov. 8 general elections for a new parliament, which will eventually lead to the election of a new president. Myanmar stunned the world by opening politically and economically in 2011 following a half-century of harsh military rule. But early reforms have since either stalled or started rolling backward. That has upped the stakes for getting cease-fire deals with all ethnic armies, one of Thein Sein's biggest pledges.

The refusal of the larger armies to sign it robs Thein Sein of what he had hoped would be the crowning achievement of his five-year term. A draft deal he secured in March was described by the United Nations as a "historic and significant achievement."

Though largely an agreement to keep talking, the agreement could pave the way for a more comprehensive political settlement in the future.

"It can't be considered a nationwide cease-fire agreement but it is the start of a process that might actually lead to all the ethnic groups signing the cease-fire agreement," Larry Jagan, a specialist on Myanmar and freelance journalist, told The Associated Press.

Still, the cease-fire agreement, called the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement, despite its truncated list of participants, is seen as a first step toward ending some six decades of fighting between the government, dominated by the Burmese majority, and various minority ethnic groups demanding autonomy and control over their natural resources.

Ethnic groups, representing 40 percent of the country's 52 million people, have found themselves victims of military abuses and discrimination in areas spanning from health and education to road construction and access to electricity. Notable among them is the Rohingya Muslim minority were stripped of their right to vote earlier this year after pressure from Buddhist nationalists.

"The Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement is a historic gift from us to the generations of the future," Thein Sein said at the signing ceremony. "Even though the agreement is not nationwide yet, we will try harder to gain the agreement with other groups."

Many ethnic armies have been fighting since the country gained independence from the British in 1948, and experts say continued civil unrest is slowing development in one of the region's poorest countries.

The signing of the agreement, which was also witnessed by representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, China and others, comes just before the Nov. 8 general elections for a new parliament, which will eventually lead to the election of a new president.

The powerful Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army and United Wa State Army — the biggest in terms of army strength and territory size — were among the key groups refusing to sign.

"We have to keep fighting for our freedom, for our political rights," said Thar Phone Kyaw, the general secretary of Ta'ang National Liberation Army, which also refused to sign. He said no cease-fire agreement will be signed without assurances they will get the "federal union" promised to them by Myanmar's independence leader Gen. Aung San more than 60 years ago.

That would give them greater control over their natural resources in the northern Shan state, including a say in issues surrounding an oil pipeline to China that has displaced people and destroyed livelihoods. 

Still, the agreement signed Thursday is not without meaning. State-run TV emphasized that point this week saying the signatories would be removed from a list of "terrorist groups."

"It's going to allow them to move around their territory, talk to their townships, build up relationships with people on the ground that they have not been able to do because before this they were called illegal," said Jagan. 

It also will potentially allow for development and investment in those areas, others say, serving as encouragement for other holdouts to join the process at a later date. 

Al Jazeera with The Associated Press

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